Communicating Neuroscience to the World

Chaz Firestone over at the blog Neuroethics at the Core posted an article back in December about the critical need for promoting an organized effort at communicating neuroscience to the general public. Chaz's article was motivated by an article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience entitled: Neurotalk: improving the communication of neuroscience research. The article addresses the problem of the increasing need for neuroscientists to communicate their research, as well as the implications of their discoveries, to the public.

The article notes the historical difficulty of assuring accurate representation of complex neuroscience concepts by the mass media.

"... neuroscience is among several scientific disciplines that are particularly prone to misinformation and inaccurate reporting. Sensational media headlines that evoke mind reading, a neurogenetic basis for fidelity or voting patterns, memory boosters for the healthy, and miracle cures for sensory and movement disorders are but a few examples."

Given the ease with which discoveries in neuroscience transformed into sensationalist headlines, and the existence of a public audience who does not possess sufficient background knowledge to critically evaluate such headlines, the authors suggest three courses of action for the neuroscience community.

1. A cultural shift within the scientific community regarding communication with the public.

"Owing to the increasing relevance of neuroscience to society, the communication of neuroscience research needs to be made a priority in the professional community, similar to protecting the rights of human subjects and ensuring appropriate animal care in research. Institutional support, which is required to advance this goal, begins with explicitly valuing the effort."

The authors cite many specific examples of how public communication could be valued. They also state the need to encourage the cultural shift at the training level:

"Neuroscience trainees and neuroscience training curricula should be at the core of the culture shift in communication education and funding. It is important to train doctoral students not just to be experts in a specific field or subfield but also to uphold the integrity of their discipline and to commit to generating new knowledge and critically evaluating that knowledge. This will help them to understand and appreciate how their work fits into the larger intellectual framework and social landscape as well as to communicate information clearly and effectively to a broad range of audiences29."

2. Creating Neuroscience Communication specialists.

"Specialized training of journalists, editors and neuroscientists is needed to promote effective communication of important neuroscience findings and considerations of their ethical, social and policy impact. We propose that specialists from both the academic and non-academic neuroscience community who can serve as specialists or ambassadors in neuroscience communication should be identified and should bring their interests to the attention of their supervisors, faculty heads and deans."

3. Conducting research of science communication.

"More empirical data are needed on neuroscience communication. It is imperative to understand the receptivity to, motivation for and barriers to communication of both neuroscience findings and their social impact. The complexities of commercialization and partnerships between academia and industry, including conflicts of interest and intellectual property and risks to the privacy of brain data, expand this imperative17, 31."

Any scientist who has been confronted with a radical misrepresentation of his/her field in the media can appreciate the need for better communication to the public. The authors call upon scientific institutions, as well as individuals, to push for a more developed appreciation for scientist/public interactions within the scientific community. As Chaz Firestone points out, the eagerness with which the public latches on to the sensationalist headlines implies a high level of interest in neuroscience and the brain. We should take advantage of that interest. But only if we, as a community, work to ensure the effective, clear and, above all, accurate communication of our research.

Tweeting the Brain by Chaz Firestone

Neurotalk: improving the communication of neuroscience research. Illes J, et al. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 11, 61-69. Jan. 2010. doi:10.1038/nrn2773


Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog